Writer & Artist: Malachi Ward
Publisher: Alternative Comics
Release Date: September 15, 2015
Most readers have only encountered this work by Malachi Ward piece by piece. Alternative Comics’ From Now On: Short Comic Tales of the Fantastic has been pieced together from one-offs in such renowned anthologies as Mome, The Best American Comics and a host of less well-known compilations and magazines. Taken individually, the comics are strong work. Together, they make up something much stronger.
All narratives take place in a distant place or time, with characters habituated to time travel, space travel or shape-shifting. “Utu,” the opening story, sets the table. At first, pulling in cinematically on a lone, ponchoed figure walking across a desolate landscape, the tale seems to focus on a “primitive” culture, one versed in shamans and gods, far separated from technology. Prophecy is alive and real. But then it transforms into a more interesting narrative as the reader realizes the protagonist’s his god is a visitor from the future, projecting himself through space and time to try to alter the present through changing the past. Ward has a gift for pulling this kind of sci-fi whatnot down to earth. It’s not really about the clever twist, a la Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” which is a clear inspiration. Instead, it’s about the emotions and human details surrounding the effort of trying to affect change, the exhaustion of getting through the day to day, the way progress has a tendency to derail without failure necessarily being big and dramatic.
These kinds of concerns carry through the other stories, especially the ones that form a disjointed short story cycle as two groups of anthropologists travel to the past to study Neanderthals. The fact that Ward keeps returning to different parts of the same story, visiting the characters at different parts in their lives and mission, is a slow-building realization—clearly related to the author’s interest in the flow of time. He often opts for panels without any dialogue, or a character might monologue to himself while completing manual labor (musing on the best time-travel episodes of Star Trek).
This slowness allows the reader to also decelerate, perceive background details and contemplate what else might be going on below the surface action. What’s that grave in the background? Could anyone be happy marooned in time? When does anger melt away to be replaced by simply being in the moment? This method slips the reader into a meditative state opposite of that spurred by the hyperactive, verbal nature of most sci-fi (whether in comics, film or prose), but these stories aren’t psychedelic or abstract either. What they are is thoughtful and dense with meaning in their simplicity, a neat trick that creates a resounding pleasure.